Back Surgery FAQs

Frequently asked questions about back surgery

People experiencing back and spine pain often have many questions regarding the causes of their pain, how to diagnose the problem, and how to treat the condition or injury. Below are several common questions and answers. 

What causes back pain?

Anything from improper lifting to aging may cause back pain. Some of the common causes include: 

  • Stretched or strained muscles
  • Injuries that damage the muscles, bones or tissue in the back
  • Herniated (slipped) disks
  • Osteoporosis
  • Obesity or excess weight
  • Poor posture
  • Pregnancy 

Should I see a doctor for my back pain? 

Back pain is common among adults, but if your pain is severe or becomes more frequent, you should talk to your doctor. If you’re having even mild back pain, you should consult a doctor if you experience: 

  • Numbness or tingling
  • Severe pain that does not improve with rest
  • Pain after a fall or an injury
  • Pain plus any of these problems:
  • Trouble urinating
  • Weakness
  • Numbness in the legs
  • Fever
  • Weight loss when not on a diet

What risk factors are associated with back pain?

A number of factors can increase the risk of back pain including:

  • Age
  • Fitness
  • Diet
  • Heredity
  • Race
  • Other diseases
  • Occupational risk factors
  • Cigarette smoking

How is back pain diagnosed?

Most back pain can be conclusively diagnosed using one or more of these four diagnostic tests:

  • X-rays (which show problems like arthritis and bone disease)
  • Computerized tomography (CT) scan
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) test
  • Myleogram

What is an MRI and what will it diagnose?

Magnetic resonance imaging, or an MRI, gives clear, detailed pictures of soft tissues near bones, the cardiovascular system and other organs. Specifically for back pain, an MRI allows doctors to look deep inside the body without surgery and can assist in diagnosing herniated discs and nerve damage.

If I am claustrophobic, are there any options besides a closed MRI to diagnose my symptoms?

Open MRIs may be an option to make the exam more comfortable for patients who fear of closed spaces or who are obese.

What is a CT scan?

Computerized tomography, or CT, is an X-ray technique that produces more detailed images of your internal organs than a conventional X-ray can produce. CT scans are used to:

  • Diagnose muscle and bone disorders, such as osteoporosis
  • Pinpoint the location of a tumor, infection or blood clot
  • Guide procedures such as surgery, biopsy and radiation therapy
  • Detect and monitor certain diseases such as cancer and heart disease
  • Detect internal injuries and internal bleeding

What is a myelogram?

A myelogram is a type of X-ray that uses a dye or contrast material and a special machine called a fluoroscope that takes moving X-rays and displays them on a monitor. Myelograms detect many spinal ailments, including:

  • Infection
  • Inflammation
  • Herniated disks (spinal disks that stick out beyond their normal area) that press on nerves
  • Spinal stenosis (a narrowing of the bones of the spine that is often caused by osteoarthritis)
  • Spinal tumors and lesions

What nonsurgical treatments are commonly used to treat back pain?

Fortunately, most back problems can be treated effectively without surgery.  Treatment options include:

  • Anti-inflammatory medicine
  • Limiting activity
  • Physical therapy
  • Pain medication as needed

What types of back injuries or conditions may require surgery?

Some conditions or injuries include:

  • Compressed spinal cord
  • Disk degeneration
  • Fractures
  • Herniated disk
  • Infections or tumors
  • Instability in the spine
  • Severely pinched nerve
  • Spinal stenosis (narrowing of the bones of the spine)
  • Spinal deformity

Surgery may also be recommended for patients with symptoms of nerve damage, including:

  • Pain radiating down the legs or arms
  • Acute pain in the affected area
  • Numbness
  • Weakness or tingling in arms or legs
  • Loss of bowel or bladder control

What non-invasive/nonsurgical procedures are available for back pain or injuries?

Today, interventional radiologists offer a minimally invasive, nonsurgical treatment for spinal fractures. Vertebroplasty may help reduce or eliminate the pain associated with spinal fractures. This treatment helps stabilize spinal factures caused by osteoporosis.

What can I do to control my back pain?

Incorporating the following into your daily routine may help minimize back pain and promote a strong and healthy back and spine:

  • Exercise regularly to keep the muscles in your back strong and flexible.
  • Stretch before exercising to warm up your muscles.
  • Avoid standing or sitting in one position for too long.
  • Maintain your proper body weight; excess weight strains your back muscles.
  • Use proper lifting and moving techniques.
  • Get help if an object is heavy or an awkward size.
  • Don’t twist when lifting.
  • Avoid smoking.
  • Use good posture when sitting or standing.